Olaf Stapledon: The Father of Modern Science Fiction

Published under a pseudonym in the August 1985 issue of High Times. As I recall now, the main reason for the pseudonym was my unhappiness with the editor’s thoughtless editing; I’ve tried to repair a little of the damage here, and also added a few details.

I can happily report that Stapledon’s work has garnered a lot more attention since 1985, and all the fiction discussed here is currently in print (or was when I last posted this), which wasn’t true back then. (Dover has excellent editions pairing Last and First Men with Star Maker and Odd John with Sirius, and An Olaf Stapledon Reader, edited by Robert Crossley, which Syracuse University Press published in 1997, includes all of The Flames and samplings from the others.) Although I don’t have much to say here about Odd John, this novel may actually serve as the best single introduction to Stapledon’s work.

One anecdotal epilogue to Jorge Luis Borges’s interest in Star Maker, cited at the end of this piece. I was lucky enough to attend a public discussion with Borges at the University of California, Santa Barbara shortly before his death, and asked him at the time to comment on this book.Read more »

Love and Money, Mostly Money

From the Chicago Reader (May 3, 1991). — J.R.

A RAGE IN HARLEM

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Bill Duke

Written by John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford

With Forest Whitaker, Gregory Hines, Robin Givens, Zakes Mokae, Danny Glover, Badja Djola, and John Toles-Bey.

THE OBJECT OF BEAUTY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Michael Lindsay-Hogg

With John Malkovich, Andie MacDowell, Joss Ackland, Rudi Davies, Peter Riegert, Lolita Davidovich, and Ricci Harnett.

OSCAR

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by John Landis

Written by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland

With Sylvester Stallone, Peter Riegert, Joey Travolta, Elizabeth Barondes, Tim Curry, Vincent Spano, Ornella Muti, and Joycelyn O’Brien.

With at least three new comedies around at the moment — four counting the semicomic Impromptu – it seems like the silly season is fully upon us. Although the three urban comedies under review are set in different decades (Oscar in the 30s, A Rage in Harlem in the 50s, The Object of Beauty in the present), they all appear at first to be equally concerned with money — the thing that keeps the wheels of their complicated farcical plots turning. All have something to do with sex and romance as well, but it’s clearly money that holds the sex and romance in place.… Read more »

The Attractions and Perils of Internationalism (2007)

My fourth bimonthly column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, this ran in their December 2007 issue (no. 7). — J.R.

I’ve been reflecting lately about the attractions and perils of internationalism, which bring up the matter of the attractions and perils of nationalism as well. As a child of the Paris Cinématheque (1969-74) who had to see most silent films there without intertitles, following Henri Langlois’ vision of cinema as a universal language, I was both charmed and awed when I met an Argentinian schoolteacher, in Mar del Plata in 2005, who told me about the network of small-town ciné-clubs in Córdoba he helped to run that projected DVDs of such films as Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962) and Kira Muratova’s Chekhov’s Motifs (2002) with Spanish subtitles for 800 or more viewers per week. A utopian undertaking in which quintessential Iranian and Russian films became available to rural Argentinians, this conjured up for me Langlois’ notion of cinema as a separate nation in its own right. So when several Chilean journalists at the Valdivia International Film Festival asked me last October what I thought of the Chilean film industry, the question sounded as weird as my asking a Chilean visiting Chicago what he or she thought of the American postal system.… Read more »

Wellesnet interview

Posted on the web site Wellesnet. I’ve added a few illustrations of my own to the original, conducted by Lawrence French.

Having worked this year as a consultant on the completion of The Other Side of the Wind, I’m no longer sure that all my comments about the film found below would still hold. – J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has long been an astute critic on the cinema of Orson Welles, frequently writing about Welles’ films. He served as the consultant for the re-edited version of TOUCH OF EVIL, and edited THIS IS ORSON WELLES, the seminal book of Welles interviews, conducted by Peter Bogdanovich.

The following interview has been combined from two separate conversations. The first took place in the fall of 1998, after the release of the re-edited version of TOUCH OF EVIL, and focused on the problems inherent in changing TOUCH OF EVIL to what Welles requested in a memo written 41 years earlier. The second interview occurred in January, 2003, and covers Welles’ two major unfinished films: DON QUIXOTE and THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

DON QUIXOTE: THE MAJOR UNFINISHED WELLES FILM

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Does the film museum in Munich now have most of the unfinished Welles films?Read more »

Ambiguous Evidence: Cozarinsky’s “Cinema Indirect”

From the September-October 1995 issue of Film Comment. I should stress that this essay is very much out of date once one starts to consider Cozarinsky’s prolific subsequent career as both a writer and a filmmaker — although I’ve anachronistically included a few more recent book covers and film posters as illustrations, as well as a poster and two stills from his most commercially successful film to date, the 2005 Ronda Nocturna, known in English as Night Watch, in part to help make up for the impossibility of finding stills for some of the rarer films of his discussed here.

Let me also quote my Reader capsule review of Night Watch: “With a few exceptions, I prefer the literature of Edgardo Cozarinsky, an Argentinean based mainly in Paris, to his films, and his nonfiction in both realms to his fiction. But this poetic, atmospheric drama, shot in Buenos Aires, challenged my bias, mixing the natural and the supernatural, the cinematic and the literary, with such assurance that Cozarinsky no longer seems like a divided artist. Following a teenage street hustler through the night of All Saints’ Day, he turns a documentary about his hometown and its street life into a haunting piece of magical realism.Read more »

Partisan [on CITIZEN LANGLOIS]

This was published in the September-October 1995 issue of Film Comment, as a sidebar to a much longer piece about Edgardo Cozarinsky, to be posted later today.– J.R.

Partisan

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

As a member of the FIPRESCI jury at Berlin that gave this year’s Forum prize to Edgardo Cozarinsky’s 68-minute Citizen Langlois, I’d like to quote our citation: “For a brilliant essay revealing a multifaceted grasp of a major pioneer for whom cinema was the ultimate nationality.”

Indeed, at a time when much of what passes for film history is being regulated nationalistically, by state bureaucrats — a process observable in such projects as the British Film Institute’s “A Century of Cinema” series (which stepped off in Berlin with Edgar Reitz’s Night of the Directors), and in the blatantly pro-industry PBS miniseries calling itself American Cinema -– Cozarinsky’s film carries a distinct polemical charge. For Henri Langlois, the unruly and passionate founder/gatekeeper of the Cinémathèque Française spent his life railing against state bureaucracies, and most of his legacy would be unthinkable without this sustained resistance. His eclectic partisanship is more than adequately matched in a personal essay that is as much about exile as Cozarisnky’s One Man’s War and Sunset Boulevards.… Read more »

MELINDA AND MELINDA (a pre-edited review)

This is the pre-edited version of a review published in its post-edited form elsewhere on this web site, as well as in the March 25, 2005 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

MELINDA AND MELINDA*

DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY WOODY ALLEN WITH RADHA MITCHELL, WILL FERRELL, CHLOE SEVIGNY, CHIWETEL EJIOFOR, JONNY LEE MILLER, BROOKE SMITH, WALLACE SHAWN, AND LARRY PINE

Amongst a democratic population, all the intellectual faculties of the workman are directed to…two objects: he strives to invent methods which may enable him not only to work better, but quicker and cheaper; or, if he cannot succeed in that, to diminish the intrinsic quality of the thing he makes, without rendering it wholly unfit for the use for which it is intended. When none but the wealthy had watches, they were almost all very good ones; few are now made which are worth much, but everybody has one in his pocket. Thus the democratic principle not only tends to direct the mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities.”

– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

De Tocqueville’s 170-year-old account of why Americans  often blanch at intellectual abstraction and art-for-art’s-sake — and prefer accessibility over complexity when it comes to both thought and art  — still seems pretty up to date.Read more »

Trapped in Time: Alain Resnais’ JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME

Written for Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray of the film, released on November 10, 2015. — J.R

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Alain Resnais (1922-2014) was the most experimental and adventurous of all the French New Wave directors, but he has rarely been recognized as such, perhaps because he stood apart from his (mainly younger) colleagues in other respects as well. Unlike Godard, Rivette, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rohmer, he wasn’t a critic or a writer, although as a teenager during the German Occupation of France he was already serving as a mentor to their own critical mentor, André Bazin, by introducing him to silent cinema in general and Fritz Lang in particular. He also preceded them all as a director in the eight remarkable non-fiction shorts he made between 1948 and 1958, the first of which (Van Gogh) won him his only Oscar. Indeed, the moment one compares these innovative shorts to the early sketches of Godard, Rivette, et al., the clearer it becomes that Resnais was already a courageous radical, both formally and politically, long before such a position even occurred to his colleagues. And one could argue that he was also already a film critic and film historian on his own elected turf, namely sound and image, even if he didn’t exhibit his exquisite cinematic taste in writing.… Read more »

The Holy Girl

From the Chicago Reader (June 17, 2005). — J.R.

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Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel follows up her distinctive debut feature, La cienaga (2001), with another tale whose feeling of lassitude conceals a subtle but deadly family dysfunction. It’s set in a specifically Catholic milieu, hovering around a medical convention at a small-town hotel, and once again a swimming pool serves as a kind of center for floating libidos. As Martel points out, the movie is about the difficulties and dangers of differentiating good from evil, and it requires as well as rewards a fair amount of alertness from the viewer. A theremin plays a prominent role in the story. In Spanish with subtitles. R, 106 min. (JR)

Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: A Few Peripheral Matters

From the Spring 2018 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.

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Let me start by paraphrasing and slightly expanding a comment of mine appended to my 2017 ten-best list for DVD Beaver. A major reason for listing Criterion’s Othello first is that it includes the digital premieres of not one, not two, but three Orson Welles features: both of his edits of Othello available with his own soundtracks, carried out respectively in 1952 and 1955 and heard for the first time in the US in several decades, and Filming Othello (1979), his last completed feature.

PARIAH

Fans of Mudbound (2017) like myself who want to get acquainted with Dee Rees’ previous work should check out the second of her three previous features, Pariah (2011), available inexpensively in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. This autobiographical look at the tribulations of a gay black teenager and her family, shot in a very different style from Mudbound (much more documentary-like), is beautifully and richly acted by its lead, Adepero Oduye — though I wonder if the use of Brooklyn rather than Rees’ native Nashville as a location (occasioned, I would guess, by the services of Spike Lee as executive producer) made any significant differences in terms of Rees’ script and/or characters.… Read more »

Double Deals [BIG BUSINESS & RED HEAT]

From the Chicago Reader (June 17, 1988). — J.R.

BIG BUSINESS

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Jim Abrahams

Written by Dori Pierson and Marc Rubel

With Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, Edward Herrmann, Michele Placido, Daniel Gerroll, and Barry Primus.

RED HEAT

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Walter Hill

Written by Harry Kleiner, Hill, and Troy Kennedy Martin

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Belushi, Peter Boyle, Ed O’Ross, Larry Fishburne, and Gina Gershon.

The silly season of summer releases is fully upon us, that time of year when expensive potboilers tend to be the only movies out there demanding our attention. Two interesting-sounding films that might have enlivened this year’s doldrums – Zelly and Me and Stars and Bars, both associated with David Puttnam’s brief stint as head of Columbia — have been unceremoniously dumped by their distributors in suburban Hillside. Paul Mayersberg’s perversely fascinating Nightfall — a head-scratching, low-budget blend of Isaac Asimov, Raul Ruiz, Jasper Johns, and psychedelic Corman movies of the 60s — departed for oblivion (or perhaps for video) before I could review it. What’s left on the table, apart from the delightful Bull Durham, are two mindless romps, each of which makes use of that veritable standby, the double plot.… Read more »

True Lies

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). — J.R.

true_lies

One hundred million dollars and 141 minutes’ worth of comic book action from Arnold Schwarzenegger and writer-director James Cameron, most of it pitched at the level of the good-natured imperial arrogance and high-tech nonsense associated with the James Bond films. The obligatory birdbrained plot has something to do with Schwarzenegger as a secret agent — an identity kept from his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and teenage daughter — who neglects family duties in order to pursue Arab terrorists and tango with Tia Carrere, who works for them, until wife and daughter get sucked into the various intrigues. The comedy is extremely broad (with Curtis eliciting almost as many laughs as Schwarzenegger), the action sequences are as well crafted as one can expect from Cameron, and the meaning is as root basic as anyone would wish. If the gulf war gave you an insatiable taste for burning oil and burning Arabs, this extravaganza will tide you over for at least a couple of days. With Tom Arnold (as the hero’s wisecracking sidekick, delivering one-liners with a nasal Alan Alda-ish edge), Bill Paxton, Art Malik, and Eliza Dushku. (JR)

trueliesRead more »

The Rocky Horror Picture Cult

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1980). -– J.R.

Now that criticism and advertising are becoming harder and harder to separate in American film culture, the notion of any genuinely spontaneous movie cult becomes automatically suspect. It implies something quite counter to the megacinema of Cimino, Coppola and Spielberg — a cinema that can confidently write its own reviews (and reviewers) if it wants to, working with the foreknowledge of a guaranteed media-saturation coverage that will automatically recruit and program most of its audience, and which dictates a central part of its meaning in advance.

For a long time in the U.S. (as elsewhere), certain specialized minority interests that get shoved off the screens by the box-office bullies have been taking refuge in midnight screenings, most of them traditionally held at weekends. But what seems truly unprecedented about the elaborate cult in the U.S. that has developed around Friday and Saturday midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, over the past three and a half years, is the degree to which a film has been appropriated by its youthful audience. Indeed, it might even be possible to argue that this audience, rather than allow itself to be used as an empty vessel to be filled with a filmmaker’s grand mythic meanings, has been learning how to use a film chiefly as a means of communicating with itself.… Read more »

Muddled Americans [TRACK 29]

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 1988). — J.R.

TRACK 29

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Dennis Potter

With Theresa Russell, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lloyd, Colleen Camp, Sandra Bernhard, and Seymour Cassel.

As a rule, I tend to be favorably disposed toward non-American movie depictions of American life, at least as a source of fresh perspectives. If we accept the premise that the U.S. continues to function as a stimulus for fantasy projections all over the world, here as well as everywhere else, it stands to reason that European projections about America would at least have the virtues of relative distance and detachment. Consequently, movies as diverse as Bunuel’s The Young One, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Passer’s Born to Win, Demy’s The Model Shop, Wenders’s Hammett and Paris, Texas, and even — to cite two recent and contentious examples — Konchalovsky’s Shy People and Adlon’s Bagdad Cafe have things to tell us about this country that we would never learn from the likes of John Ford or Frank Capra. The truths of these movies may be more oblique and specialized (and harder to encapsulate) than those of our semiofficial laureates, but at least they give us some notion of how we look to outsiders.… Read more »

Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (third dozen)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the third dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

Salt of the Earth
This rarely screened 1954 classic is the only major American independent feature made by communists; a fictional story about the Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico then striking against their Anglo management, it was informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of the period. The film was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun), producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan, among others; as Jarrico later reasoned, since they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a “crime to fit the punishment” by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a very high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated. Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, it was widely shown and honored in Europe, but it’s never received the recognition it deserves stateside. Regrettably, its best-known critical discussion in the U.S. is in Pauline Kael’s final essay in her first collection — a 1954 broadside in which this film is ridiculed as “propaganda” alongside a forgettable cold war thriller, Night People, that’s skewered as “advertising”.… Read more »